White guilt has exhausted itself, President-elect Barack Obama once wrote. Well, not so fast. His former opponent U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush apparently thinks there's still some life left in it.
What else can we make of the South Side Chicago Democratic congressman's backing of Roland Burris, who has been appointed to Obama's old Senate seat by a governor who is out on bail.
Dreamers hoped Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich would go quietly from office after his Dec. 9 arrest for federal corruption charges that include his allegedly trying to sell Obama's Senate seat to the highest bidder.
Rush, a former leader of the Illinois Black Panther Party, used to sound as troubled by that as other Democratic lawmakers did, until Blagojevich named Burris, a former Illinois attorney general and fellow African American. Then things changed. In a Blagojevich news conference to announce Burris, Rush said he was supporting Burris essentially for one reason: the Senate needs a black member and even the scandalized Blago's man will do.
I found it curious that Rush's concern for black representation did not stop him from endorsing a white Obama opponent, Blair Hull, for the seat in the 2004 primary. But of course, four years earlier, Rush became the only man so far to beat Obama, when the young state senator tried to unseat the popular incumbent. Rush later endorsed Obama's presidential bid, being savvy enough to know which way the political winds were blowing.
Yet here he was, boosting Burris by playing to white guilt. He used the Senate's current lack of any black members as a one-size-fits-all justification for the body to accept Burris and "not hang or lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointer."
But, why not? This fight isn't about Burris. It's about Blagojevich. The Democrats who control the Senate are not rejecting all black appointees. They only want to reject anyone who is appointed by this governor, regardless of their race, gender or whatever. Considering the way this governor appears to have embarrassed his office, according to the federal prosecutor's court-ordered wiretaps, that's a worthy goal for the senators to have.
Yet on CBS's "The Early Show," Rush pressed further. He compared plans by Senate Democrats to block Burris to white governors in the Jim Crow south who blocked the desegregation of public schools and colleges. Never have images from the bad old days of white bigotry sounded so breathtakingly inappropriate, especially when they come so soon after the election of the nation's first black president.
Is this where the revolution has come? Has the black community become the last refuge for scalawags like Blagojevich, whose approval ratings had fallen to only 13 percent in a Chicago Tribune poll even before his arrest?
As a fellow African American, I resent that notion, and I don't appear to be alone. Secretary of State Jesse White, a black Democratic friend of Rush and Burris, nevertheless is refusing to certify Burris' appointment in what he called "a moral decision," even if it fails to hold up in court.
Rep. Danny Davis, another African American House member from Chicago, revealed that he had been asked by Blagojevich and turned it down, saying that any appointee from the governor would be too tainted to serve.
Sure, it might be purely coincidental that Blagojevich happened to pick two black candidates in a row. Or maybe he feels a sincere liberal urge to make Obama's desk a "black seat." And maybe there really is a tooth fairy. More likely, the message to Burris is this: You're getting played.
Blagojevich undoubtedly hopes white senators will bow to the possibility of a black backlash in Burris' favor. That would have been more likely had Obama not held fast to his call for Blagojevich to step aside. Obama paid proper respect to Burris' public service, which includes his election to state comptroller as the first black officeholder to be elected statewide. Nevertheless, he asked that no one accept an appointment that was not "free of taint and controversy."
Having covered Rush as a reporter and commentator since his Black Panther days, I like him. I have admired his transition from beret-wearing militant to suit-and-tie South Side Chicago congressman. I like Burris, too. His only sins until now, as far as I know, have been a political tone-deafness that has prevented him from getting past the primaries in one run for the Senate, one for Chicago mayor and three times for governor.
But if this dustup over Burris is to become a battle for the hearts and minds of black Americans with Rush on one side and Obama on the other, I'm betting on Obama. If Burris wants to be a senator, let him run for it. Again.